Climate and ecological change threaten planetary, individual, and community health and wellbeing. Widespread damages to ecosystems and people have already occurred, and many projected future impacts are unavoidable1.
The impacts of ecological change are widely felt. In Australia, up to 80% of people have experienced the direct effects of extreme weather events since 2019, and over half (51%) of these individuals report that their mental health has been impacted2.
Eco-distress is an important consequence of these crises. Eco-distress refers to psychological and emotional responses related to present or future ecological change. It includes a range of emotions such as fear, frustration, anger, guilt, grief, and anxiety4; it can also include hope, care, inspiration and motivation toward pro-environmental behaviour5.
Eco-distress is typically a healthy and appropriate response to local and global ecological crises5. As put by UK researchers, “A degree of emotional disturbance may be an important precursor to realigning our actions to a moral code that has been violated.”
But in some cases, eco-distress can become overwhelming and diminish one’s sense of wellbeing and the likelihood of collective action for the environment. Many individuals and communities need support to face eco-distress in meaningful and healthy ways.
Contemplative nature engagement practices can play a role in addressing ecological distress. These practices integrate meditation and reflection with sensory and imaginative engagement with nature in ways that promote positive outcomes for individual people, communities, and the natural world.
As academics and teachers and leaders of diverse contemplative practices, we believe contemplative nature engagement practices have much to offer for creating healthier relationships with self, others, and nature.
Principles for preparing and implementing contemplative nature engagement practices
1. Understand participant needs
A first step for preparing contemplative nature engagement practices is understanding the participant context and needs. Consider the culture and worldviews of participants and the practice, individual psychological wellbeing (including level of eco-distress), needs and capacity for practice and regulation, and prior experience with the practice or alternative practices. Practices should be designed and implemented in ways to meet participants where they are.
2. Curate a restorative physical setting
The environment that the practice is situated within will naturally shape the practice and pathways of growth. It should be safe, accessible and resonate with the activity and audience. It is helpful for the environment to provide a sense of distance from everyday life as well as gentle interest and enjoyment. The environment should provide opportunities for sensory or imagined engagement with nature, and interactions enriched with reciprocity, honour, and reverence of place.
3. Establish a safe social space
It is critical to establish a supportive social setting that respects individual and cultural safety. There are multiple ways to achieve this. Participants should have the choice to take part in all aspects of the practice: activities should be non-prescriptive, using invitations rather than instructions. Encourage storytelling between participants during sharing time and use circles rather than hierarchical arrangements. Where there are more sensitive group dynamics, group agreements can be established prior to practice.
4. Foster a sacred moment
Frame the experience and activity in a way that fosters expectation and seeking of growth, insight, and transformation. Simple actions like lighting a candle or holding silence can help participants be receptive to the layers of experience and outcomes of the practice design. These framings and expectations should resonate and be consistent with the other principles – they must consider participant needs, the environment, and the social setting.
Tags: Contemplative nature engagement, Curate a restorative physical setting, cycles of transformation through practices, ecological distress, Establish a safe social space, Foster a sacred moment, psychological and emotional responses, Understand participant needs